Art Institute Ties Membership Push to Exhibit

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The Art Institute of Chicago plans to send 400,000 direct mail pieces next month as part of an ongoing campaign to acquire members and promote its exhibition on Van Gogh and Gauguin that will run from September through January.

"It's easier to market special exhibitions as opposed to permanent collections," said Gerald Padbury, director of annual programs at the Art Institute. "Direct mail pre-markets the exhibition and the benefits of membership, such as free tickets."

The first mailing went out last fall to 400,000 people. It offered discounted membership and free tickets to the exhibition. The piece had a 1.2 percent response rate and brought the museum 4,700 new members, Padbury said.

The April mailing will go to people whose age, income, education and lifestyle are similar to the Art Institute's membership. Padbury uses art magazine lists, lists of museum show ticket buyers and lists from other cultural nonprofits.

Padbury said retention is an added benefit of acquiring members through direct mail. People who become members in response to mail campaigns are more likely to renew, he said, because they give more thought than those who join spontaneously after seeing an exhibition at the Art Institute.

Promoting membership through blockbuster exhibitions is a trend the Art Institute pioneered with a Monet exhibition in 1994. That was followed in 1995, 1996 and 1997 with Renoir, Degas and Mary Cassatt exhibitions.

Padbury said the direct mail efforts have become much more elaborate since 1994.

"They hit you over the head a little stronger than they did before," he said.

Art Institute membership went from 90,000 to a little more than 150,000 at its peak during the Renoir exhibition. Membership is currently 121,000, which is the highest in the country, said Deborah Rothman, chairwoman of the Public Relations and Marketing Standing Professional Committee of the American Association of Museums.

Padbury thinks the trend for mega-exhibitions accompanied by direct mail blitzes will continue to grow.

"In the past few years there have been Van Gogh exhibitions all over the country -- Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Detroit and right now in St. Louis," he said. "These exhibitions will continue to be linked with direct mail."

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